A feudal horn
They were playing Blood on the Tracks in the shop I wandered into yesterday. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” was halfway through: a song that always lightens my step. The choice of music in shops is an underrated business and although I didn’t really want to buy anything, their sound system was good enough to make me stick around to listen to some more of Bob. Two songs later it was “Shelter from the Storm”, with that quietly impassioned vocal set against the strumming acoustic guitars and the halved-time bass guitar.
An hour later I was in a restaurant, having lunch with a friend who loves Dylan as much as I do, and I mentioned that I was always amused by a line in the seventh verse: “And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a feudal horn…” No, no, she said. That’s not it. It’s funeral horn. Undertaker. Funeral horn. Get it? Well, I said, I’d always thought it might be flugelhorn, with a slightly mangled pronunciation, but “funeral horn” sounded too literal, particularly for Bob. So she got out her smartphone and went on to bobdylan.com and discovered just here that the official version is “futile horn”.
Not for me it isn’t, and nor will it ever be. Do we really imagine, I said to my friend, that Bob Dylan transcribes his own lyrics? That’s just some devoted functionary getting it wrong. In fact there’s an entire website devoted to mishearings of Dylan lyrics (find it here) and sure enough someone agrees with me on the matter of the one-eyed undertaker’s “feudal horn”. (Someone else also thinks it might be “flugelhorn”; there appears to be no recorded corroboration of my friend’s “funeral horn”. Only Dylan could be the subject of four conflicting versions of a single word.) To settle the matter, take a listen to the driving version on Hard Rain, from the Rolling Thunder tour in 1976: the vocal is very clear, and that’s a “d”, not a “t”. And I know exactly what a feudal horn sounds like, even though I’ve never heard one. So does Bob.